Art and Learning
The new Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex fosters an innovative approach to teaching kids in all subjects.
Piano music wafts out the doors of the small school tucked in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood. Inside a classroom at Wasatch Elementary, children are leaping into the air and singing about colorful and peaceful dreams that they hope to catch with hula hoops lifted high toward the ceiling. They play recorders and beat drums and act out The Legend of the Rainbow, an opera they wrote themselves. “Nightmares, do you have your costumes?” third-grade teacher Kathy Travers calls out to the children playing bad dreams, who swoop across the stage as a black light illuminates their white tunics. The opera took the children more than five months to put together and culminates in a performance at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
But this production is about more than music and dance and drama. As they perfect their play, these third-graders are learning lessons in core subjects of science and math, as well as social studies, reading, and writing. They count out the beats to their dances and songs, perfecting basic math skills. They develop a script by researching various legends as part of their class curriculum. They construct chalk murals of rainbows and other weather elements for the stage’s backdrop, and their corresponding essays line school walls.
What’s happening at Wasatch Elementary can be traced to the University of Utah’s new integrated teaching approach developed over the past several years through a complete redesign of the U’s teacher education program. Facilitating that approach is the new Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex, which opened early this year and brings together under one roof the University’s College of Education and the Tanner Dance Program, as well as programs from the College of Fine Arts. In addition to traditional classroom and research space, the facility features six dance studios, a performance auditorium, a black box theater, and a visual arts studio. (Milton Bennion Hall will continue to be used by the College of Education, as well, for its classroom, research, and lab space).
“The way the new building has been set up so that we can collaborate together and across is one of the most unique characteristics I’ve seen in any College of Education,” says María Fránquiz, who became dean of the College of Education this past January. “It’s going to create possibilities for interdisciplinary learning that would not have been possible in a space that is more constrained.”
Standard educational models are based on teaching students to learn subjects across the curricula, one at a time in separate blocks, with standardized tests measuring learning, again focused on each subject in isolation. But the U’s new program is preparing teachers to use an evidence-based integrated curriculum model in which children simultaneously explore multiple subjects, such as art and science, and apply them thematically. The program also emphasizes using the arts as a teaching tool for all subjects. Housing arts and education programs in one building is vital to advancing that integrated approach, Fránquiz says.
“To be able to think beyond the standards hasn’t been highly encouraged in the last couple of decades, and that’s what’s possible here,” she says. “You’re looking beyond the standards. You’re offering more than content.” The key is that the arts, including both fine arts and the performing arts, are incorporated as a part of learning other subjects, rather than provided as a separate, add-on program to students. “The arts are a way of learning,” Fránquiz says. “They are a way of constructing knowledge. The idea is that all our senses play a part in education. Not everyone learns from a book.”
Mike Sikes, a former assistant director for education at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., calls the U’s new teaching model “groundbreaking.” “You’re not just filling kids’ heads with knowledge, but making them world-class thinkers,” says Sikes, who now works as an education consultant based in Greensboro, North Carolina. “It’s weaving content and knowledge together.” By focusing on conceptual and higher-order learning, the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage, but the guide on the side,” he notes. With an integrated teaching and learning approach, students are more responsible for framing the knowledge they assimilate, making projects and tasks more relevant. “Something powerful happens when you break down the barriers between disciplines.”
The U’s College of Education began restructuring its teacher training program in the spring of 2006 in response to national research and data that led to many of the same conclusions, mainly that children were better served and learned more through an integrated curriculum model that intentionally overlapped subject areas and facilitated collaboration among teachers with various specialties.
“Traditionally, those subjects are taught in silos—a half hour of reading, a half hour of math, a half hour of social studies,” says Michael Hardman BS’71 MS’73 PhD’75, who initiated the redesign of teacher education when he was dean of the College of Education. “The research, the literature, focuses on integrating those areas in ways that make sense so they’re much more applied,” says Hardman, a Distinguished Professor who became the U’s chief global officer in 2013, heading the U Office for Global Engagement. “We don’t want students to just be feeding back information. We want students to be involved in the creativity.”
The U also recognized a major retooling was needed because of the complicated landscape created by federal No Child Left Behind mandates, which emphasized mastery of core subjects and required standardized testing to gauge adequate yearly progress. Educators were concerned the tests were too narrow in measuring the scope of children’s learning, Hardman says. It is much harder to measure arts knowledge and creativity, and there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to cover all the subjects separately. “Arts education was being pushed out,” he says. So the U began looking at ways to connect arts curriculum with other subjects, to not only free up time for activities such as painting and music but to help students see how various forms of knowledge interrelate. “The integrated curriculum model changed the whole dynamic,” Hardman says.
That new approach was championed by the late Beverley Taylor Sorenson BS’45, who graduated from the U with a teaching certificate and gave millions of dollars to arts education. Her efforts began in 1995 with her Art Works for Kids program, which provides professional development for teachers and arts specialists and is considered a national model for arts education in elementary schools. With added funding from the Utah State Legislature in 2008, her integrated arts teaching model was expanded statewide through the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program. She also created and funded endowed arts education chairs at universities across the state and contributed the largest single donation—$12.5 million—to the new $37.5 million, 110,000-square-foot Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex.
Raymond Tymas-Jones, dean of the College of Fine Arts and the University’s associate vice president for the arts, describes the new facility as “an unprecedented partnership between the colleges of Education and Fine Arts, along with Tanner Dance.” The building, which also houses the Center for the Advancement of Technology in Education, the new National Center for Science and Math Education, and the Utah Education Policy Center, will allow the College of Fine Arts to continue to prepare K-12 teaching specialists in art, music, theater, and dance education. The College of Fine Arts offers undergraduate degrees and endorsements for teaching specializations in all four art forms and will hold some classes supporting those degrees at the new Sorenson facility. The building also will provide the college with the space to continue providing professional development workshops for both in-service arts specialists and classroom teachers, as well as arts education programs for school-age children through its Youth Arts Division. “This complex will be a state and national source of scholarship and applied research knowledge on new cutting-edge approaches in education for K-12 students, teachers in training, and professional development for practicing teachers,” Tymas-Jones says.
Mary Ann Lee BA’68, director of the Tanner Dance Program, says the new building also will allow her to expand into other genres of dance and broaden programs, including day camps for adults with disabilities. Tanner Dance now serves about 5,000 students every week, including 4,000 students in site-based programs at elementary schools and another 1,000 dance students at the new complex. Since its establishment in 1949, Tanner Dance has moved from one temporary location to another around Salt Lake City, including the old Deseret Gym, the McCune Mansion, one of the “barracks buildings” on campus, and even the North Temple Bowling Alley. Lee is thrilled to finally have a permanent home, especially one with floor-to-ceiling studio windows that give the feeling of “dancing at the edge of the world,” she says. “To have a building where all of these ideas can be housed and then can flourish and grow is astonishing.”
Take Kelby McIntyre-Martinez’s 15 students, who are gathered in a circle and tossing a bean bag back and forth at Milton Bennion Hall. Another bean bag is tossed into the mix, and another. Soon they are juggling multiple bean bags while yelling out facts about ancient Greece each time a bag is caught. The group laughs as bean bags are missed and tidbits of information are recalled or flubbed. But this isn’t another grade-school class. These students are juniors and seniors majoring in elementary education at the University of Utah.
“If we’re laughing and giggling, don’t you think your sixth-graders will be laughing and giggling?” says McIntyre-Martinez, director of professional development for the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program and an instructor with the U’s College of Education. “It’s a tiptoe into what they may be experiencing.” The game is fun but overwhelming, she notes. “There are so many moving parts,” which is entirely the point. Movement—like the bean bag game, or dancing or acting out a part, or playing a musical instrument, or even painting or drawing—engages the whole brain. “Active learning has significant advantages over sedentary learning,” she says.
The new approach makes learning fun, Hardman says, for both schoolchildren and teacher-education students. “There’s a joy to it. You can learn and have fun and be happy. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Beverley Taylor Sorenson’s son Jim Sorenson BS’75 and daughter Ann Crocker BS’74 say their mother realized the need for that different approach. Her advocacy for integrated arts education began decades ago when she heard that state funding for the arts had been cut. “My mother loved the arts,” Crocker says. “She was very passionate about the arts. The family was always playing the piano and dancing. So when she found out they had taken the arts out of the schools, she wanted to bring it back. She said it was wrong of them to do that.”
At the same time, one of her own grandchildren was struggling as a teenager. She was watching the sullen boy listening to rap music on his Walkman while his younger sister, who was five or six years old, was enthusiastically dancing to music from The Phantom of the Opera. “It hit her, the impact that art and media can have, particularly on children at a formative age,” Sorenson says. “That was really quite a catalytic experience for her.”
Not long after, Beverley Taylor Sorenson gathered a group of stakeholders around her kitchen table to discuss what could be done and how she could help advance development of the U’s new teaching model. To mark that beginning, a replica of a kitchen table from her home was brought to the new Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex, where it is in the center of a conference room.
Integrating arts into the classroom not only involves schoolchildren, it also has an effect on parents and teachers. According to the Utah Education Policy Center, an education research center at the U, teachers at schools with integrated arts programs are more likely to collaborate and participate in professional development, and parents are more engaged. The policy center has been conducting annual evaluations of the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program since the program’s inception in 2008. This past year, at the request of the Utah State Office of Education, the center used research on the arts program’s endeavors to complete a five-year study on the general state of arts education in Utah public schools. Besides the results for teachers and parents, the study, completed in December 2013, found that students at schools that were integrating the arts showed higher participation and attentiveness in class, and their attendance was higher. The research was inconclusive on the relationship between arts education and student learning outcomes but did find that the more years a school implemented the arts learning program, the higher students’ test scores were when averaged across three years.
Travers has seen those benefits first-hand with her third-grade class at Wasatch Elementary. By incorporating arts in learning, the students gain ownership of their work. “It empowers them for the rest of their lives. They know their ideas count,” she says. “It comes down to the desire to want to learn.” Sarah Munro, whose son Powell participated in the play as a student in Travers’s class, says the integrated approach has engaged her son and encouraged him to explore. “He’s just thrived. He likes the hustle and bustle and likes the art.” One day, he even told her, “I don’t want you to be sad, but I like school better than home.”
—Kim M. Horiuchi is an associate editor of Continuum.